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Happy to Be Here: Education thriving on stage

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“Amazing!”

That’s the word Michaela Murphy uses to describe the community of students, teachers, and artists involved in the programming she leads at Bucks County Playhouse.

Appointed director of education in September 2017, she’s been here just over 18 months and is caught up in existing programs and starting new ones.

I talked to her just as this year’s Student Theater Festival was winding down. The next weekend “Best of Fest” would be on the Playhouse stage. The 51-year-old student festival brings more than a thousand students from 35 schools to New Hope to perform their school productions on the Playhouse stage. Newtown Arts Company supports the Playhouse Student Theater Festival each year with a local volunteers.

As many as eight schools a day arrived in separate groups in New Hope during two weeks in April. Students spent their mornings in workshops taught by Playhouse artists at four locations: Lambertville Hall, a Playhouse venue in Lambertville, N.J., and New Hope Arts, Triumph Brewery and fitness center Unbound Synergy in New Hope. Afternoons were spent at the Playhouse, with students performing excerpts from their school plays and musicals.

Playhouse artists, including actors, directors, choreographers, and playwrights serve as adjudicators watching the performances and offering feedback to the students as both encouragement and support of their work onstage.

A selection of outstanding performances – are invited back for “Best of the Fest.”

Then on to the next event, this summer’s musical production “Shrek the Musical Jr.” presented by BCP’s Youth Company, featuring performers 13 to 18 years old. will be directed by Kate Wetherhead.

The Youth Company, for students with a serious interest in theater, offers five weeks of intensive training with instruction from working Broadway artists. The rigorous training program includes daily rehearsals for a professionally produced production; master classes with artists from the Playhouse’s main stage; and outreach performances in the region.

“Shrek’ rehearsals, including a student orchestra, begin July 1, leading up to the staged production July 24-Aug. 3.

“Last summer, BCP’s Youth Company performed Cinderella for Young Audiences for more than 3,100 people on the Playhouse mainstage and in outreach performances at local libraries, museums and festivals,” according to the Playhouse website.

And, enrollment is currently open for GirlSpeak, an innovative program for teenage girls that runs for 12 weeks beginning in the fall. Girls meet twice a week to create an original theater piece that is performed for both the public and in tours to local high schools at the end of the session.

“GirlSpeak is a powerful experience for both the participants and the audience. We are hoping to develop a similar program for teenage boys as well,” Michaela said, thinking of possibilities for the future.

Playhouse education is not just for children and teenagers. The storytelling series “Word of Mouth, Real People, Real Stories,” featuring professional storytellers in themed evenings, storytelling workshops and community story slams are running through 2019.

“Word of Mouth” performances feature an evening of stories in Lambertville Hall’s intimate cabaret setting, told by storytellers from New York storytelling shows like The Moth, R!SK, and The Liar Show. The next Word of Mouth show “Excuses” is May 31. Tickets are on sale now.

There’s a chance for local storytellers at the Word of Mouth story slams, also at Lambertville Hall. The next story slam is Friday, May 10. Storytellers are asked to bring a 5-minute story on this month’s theme, “Parents” and put their name in the hat for a chance to slam their story onstage. Story signup begins at 6:30 p.m.

The Playhouse Institute, a new educational arm of the nonprofit Playhouse, will launch the first of a series of conferences for educators on May 18. The conferences bring middle school, high school and college teachers to the Playhouse to work with professional theater artists to enhance their skills in the classrooms or in creating student productions. The Playhouse recently received certification from the Pennsylvania Department of Education as an Act 48 provider for continuing education credits.

The Playhouse’s newest venture is a departure from its New Hope home-base – a public school residency. The program, Bounce, launches this fall, with Michaela and two teaching artists in residence in the Morrisville School District, Bucks County’s smallest district. Bounce begins with fourth grade students, and is designed to support the district’s social-emotional learning platform. Programming is planned to continue with succeeding grades annually through high school

Everyone involved with Bounce is thrilled by the enthusiasm and show of support, Michaela said. “In a few years, Morrisville will not only be able to mount a student production in their own school, they will also be able to join their neighboring communities and perform their show at our annual Student Theater Festival.”

Michaela is a writer, playwright, storyteller and teacher. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Second Stage Theater Off-Broadway, The Moth Mainstage, The Liar Show, RISK!, and TEDx, in the Clinton White House and in The New Yorker.

She most recently worked in Detroit, where she was a co-founder of “L!FE: Leadership Fueled by Entrepreneur–ism,” an education platform for high school students.

Ambitious plans are ahead for education at the Playhouse. An enthusiastic leader, Michaela is well-prepared to meet the challenge.

It’s amazing what can be done with outreach.


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